The Rise and Fall of the Black Mafia

A deeply researched book by a former Philadelphian policeman-turned-academic chronicles the reign of an ultra-violent organized crime family.

By Tim Whitaker
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 13 | Posted Oct. 8, 2003

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Bring up the subject of organized crime in the city, and the first and only thing most people think of is the decades-long Bruno-through-Merlino Italian mob from South Philadelphia.

But from roughly 1968 through 1984, organized crime also flourished in many of the city's African-American neighborhoods, most of it under the average Philadelphian's radar.

"The Black Mafia ran the heroin trade in the city," says Sean Griffin, a former Philadelphia policeman and the author of Philadelphia's 'Black Mafia', a new book that combines gritty street reporting with extensive scholarly research. "They were ruthless and ultra violent. They ruled major sections of the city, and yet somehow today it's as if they never existed."

The Black Mafia was "founded" in 1968 by Sam Christian, "a thick-necked 215-pound bully" and former Black Panther with an extensive rap sheet. Christian built his reputation holding up craps games and extorting drug dealers, numbers men and illegitimate businesses.

In the early days, the Black Mafia's organized command structure consisted of 14 men, all with extensive records, most for violent crimes. As Griffin points out in Philadelphia's 'Black Mafia', a book that grew out of the author's Ph.D. dissertation, the nature of their crimes made them difficult criminals to prosecute because their victims and witnesses so feared retribution.

The stakes for their victims were upped considerably in 1970, when the leaders of the Black Mafia began trafficking narcotics and shooting up bars and businesses when their extortion demands weren't met. A black newspaper in South Philadelphia criticized then-district attorney Arlen Specter for not having the "guts" to address the problem. But as Griffin reports, "the sensitive issue of race was compounded by the Black Mafia's relationship with the burgeoning Black Muslim movement."

Faced with a turf war they would undoubtedly lose, the Black Mafia opted instead to become the extortion arm of the Black Muslims.

Griffin writes that "for a period of approximately five years ending with the death of Elijah Muhammad in February 1975," criminal elements within Philadelphia's Black Muslim Mosque No. 12 worked with the Black Mafia to commandeer lucrative drug territories. The book also tells how the Black Mafia was simultaneously misappropriating government funding for alleged "grassroots" development.

Griffin's reporting on the Black Mafia and its interaction with law enforcement, the Nation of Islam and the Italian mob is fascinating, as much for the book's attention to detail as for the group's over-the-top brutality. Payback and killings were routine--Griffin reports that the Black Mafia murdered more than 30 people from 1968 through 1984--but specific incidents stand out, most notably the Dubrow Furniture Store robbery and the shootout at Atlantic City's famed Club Harlem.


In Jan. 4, 1971, eight Black Mafia affiliates robbed Dubrow Furniture, a city landmark then located at Fourth and South streets.

Writes Griffin: "At approximately 2:00pm, ['Nudie'] Mims, a 'hulking, six-foot, four-inch, 225-pound killer,' and an accomplice entered the store posing as customers. Over the next several minutes, the remaining six affiliates entered the store alone or in pairs, each posing as customers. Once each was inside, they drew guns and forced 20 employees into a rear room where they stripped them, forced them to lie face-down on the floor, and bound them with tape and electrical cord. Thirteen of the employees were beaten and pistol-whipped, and two others were shot."

One of the beating victims was soaked in gasoline and set on fire. The robbers also spilled gasoline throughout the store, setting five fires in an apparent attempt to destroy evidence. Frank Rizzo, then the city's police commissioner, called it "the most vicious crime" he had ever witnessed, and offered to "pull the switch" himself if the defendants received the death penalty.

The other "watershed" moment in Black Mafia history took place Easter Sunday 1972, when "Fat" Tyrone Palmer, known on the street as "Mr. Millionaire," was gunned down in front of several hundred people in Atlantic City's Club Harlem.

Griffin writes that Palmer had just returned from vacation in Bermuda and was sitting ringside at the Harlem with an entourage of women and bodyguards, listening to Philadelphia R&B singer Billy Paul onstage.

Just as Paul was ending "Magic Carpet Ride," his opening number, a gunman walked up to Palmer, shot him in the face, then shot him twice more as he was falling backward. Before Palmer's bodyguards could react, other Black Mafia members opened fire.

When it was all over, 20 people were wounded--11 from gunfire and broken glass, the rest from the melee that ensued. Palmer, three women and Palmer's personal bodyguard were killed. The gunmen even exchanged gunfire with arriving Atlantic City police officers.

Griffin says the chronicling of the Philadelphia Black Mafia's 17-year run is important, not just because of the lessons that can be learned, but because it gives comfort to the living victims of the organization's reign of terror.

"The most rewarding part of the research was finding people who were terrorized all those years ago," Griffin says. "They couldn't believe that somebody remembered and took the time to care."

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 13 of 13
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1. WILMOX said... on Jul 11, 2010 at 03:00PM

“WHITES HAVE BEEN ROBBING AND KILLING FOR YEARS AND HAS SOON AS BLACKS START DOING SOMETHING ITS A BIG DEAL AND BLOODLY MURDER,BUT YOU HAVE TOO ASK YOURSELF WHO DID THEY LEARN IT FROM.......WHITE PEOPLES.”

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2. WILMOX said... on Jul 11, 2010 at 03:01PM

“WHITES HAVE BEEN ROBBING AND KILLING FOR YEARS AND HAS SOON AS BLACKS START DOING SOMETHING ITS A BIG DEAL AND BLOODLY MURDER,BUT YOU HAVE TOO ASK YOURSELF WHO DID THEY LEARN IT FROM.......WHITE PEOPLES.”

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3. Tim said... on Oct 13, 2011 at 11:51AM

“Crime and corruption comes in all color........................”

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4. Fred X said... on Dec 8, 2011 at 10:27PM

“As always, there is more than one point of view. From the main stream press's point of view, it will write about any Black nationalism group from a negative point of view. As anyone can see, it is always one sided. It will only write about the bad. It will never give a group that believes in Black Nationalism any credit for the good it does. On the surface, Griffin's conclusion that Black nationalism groups are killers and haters may look true.If a person looks beneath the surface, the only thing Black nationalism is fighting is colonalism and a unconscious belief in a group's feelings of inferiority.”

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5. Chris Crum said... on Jun 19, 2012 at 01:56PM

“I use to buy pure heroin from the Colored Mafia in north Philly, these were tough bastards...”

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6. B St. Cyr said... on Aug 20, 2012 at 12:04PM

“@ Wilmox, Man is inherently evil no matter what the color of his skin. So we as black people didn't have to learn it from anybody It's like Prego, it's in there.....we all (mankind) have the ability to be evil as we can see from the beginning of time”

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7. rich s said... on Dec 2, 2012 at 02:25AM

“Crime is crime, no matter what your race or nationality.”

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8. Don Christian said... on Jan 13, 2013 at 02:29PM

“Thats my family.

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9. deen said... on Feb 24, 2013 at 07:04PM

“If the drunken europeans didnt invent the illegal drug/alcohol trade who else???”

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10. ThirdRail said... on Jul 26, 2013 at 06:05AM

“I see Wilmox did what every person that doesn't want to own responsibility did and blamed the White man for the Black Mafia. If they learned to Rob and Steal from us, as you say, well why don't you learn how to get jobs and be responsible just the same. The common belief in the ghetto is if you use proper English and have manners and abide by the law, you are acting White and that is a weakness.
Just as Deen said "The drunken Europeans" invented the illegal drug/alcohol trade. What school did you drop out of?”

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11. ThirdRail said... on Jul 26, 2013 at 06:25AM

“What event orchestrated by the white man, taught the group of "Black Mafia" Enforcers to go to Washington D.C. and execute an entire family including infants that were drowned in a sink in the basement, because of a letter the Head of their family sent out about Elijah Muhammad? What other teachings did the white man render that encouraged the robbery and murders that took place in regards to the Dubrow furniture store incident as well as the other 40-50 executions that took place during their reign over the city?”

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12. Joe said... on Dec 28, 2013 at 04:22PM

“My grandfather was mentioned in his 1st book for refusing to pay these guys... I remember them and they werent so tough when they had a gun pointed back at them..... I was there....”

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13. Darrell Williams said... on Mar 13, 2014 at 12:08AM

“Things and situations that occurs for the benefit of robbing the government is a well calculated plan of action that requires strong leadership that can motivate and manipulate the people of these "United Snakes of AmeriKKKa.". If you want to acknowledge the fact that the mafiaoso opened a can of worms and was well respected by the soldiers of WWW11(White World War 2), then money was the prime piece of the puzzle that is still puzzling people on a daily basis. The people have to have a piece of the apple pie before it gets gone. It gets devoured by greedy gulping grab~ass goofy gimps that call themselves the peoples people. YEAH...RIGHT!!!!!~!”

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